Guilty Non-Pleasures is a new column featuring essays on albums and artists we’re supposed to love, but don’t. Written begrudgingly by the Paste Music Team.
It’s difficult to write about something you love, and even more difficult to write about something you unwillingly dislike. I desperately want to be a fan of The National. I think Matt Berninger is a genius songwriter. His lyrics are devastating and have a habit of dragging you through an emotional darkness you intentionally, however foolishly, sidestep. His baritone vocals are beautiful. I wish I had even a miniscule shard of the musical talent he possesses. I want it to be crystal clear: I respect Berninger. I really, really do.
Despite all that, I can’t get into the band one bit and, to top it off, I think the record High Violet in particular is a goddamn snooze fest.
In May 2010, The National released High Violet, their fifth album, to critical acclaim. We at Paste gave it an 8.1, and our friendly rivals at Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound gave it an 8.7 and A-, respectively. Now, eight years later, I’d give it a 5.2, though I think even that’s generous. Perhaps if my ranking was based on how likely this album would put me to sleep, I would rate it more in line with its aforementioned scores. High Violet is exhausting— an exuberant A+ on the sleep scale. The National could easily be prescribed instead of Ambien.
From the opening chords of “Terrible Love,” I’m instantly bummed out. Bummed, a) because I have to listen to this entire album yet again, and b) because holy shit. It’s depressing. Paste’s glowing review reads, “The National’s output resembles a painstaking charcoal sketch with dramatic interplay between light and shadow.” I think that is probably true, but only if you smeared the charcoal into oblivion, creating a massive grey blur. In its entirety, this record is a bleak, smudgy mess.
After the opening track it slides into “Sorrow,” “Anyone’s Ghost,” and “Little Faith,” three moody songs proliferated by Berninger’s deep tones. This is the point in High Violet where I have to force myself to pay attention. It’s not easy. Begrudgingly, I move on.
“We started out trying to make a fun pop record. I had the word ‘HAPPINESS’ taped to my wall. We veered off that course immediately,” Berninger once told Stereogum in reference to High Violet. I have to wonder what this album would have been as a “fun pop record.” I might have enjoyed it more. Sufjan Stevens lent his influence to “Afraid of Everyone,” and surely he could have helped turn this record into a something uplifting. There’s no end to Stevens’s array of emotions and he can make even the saddest moments hopeful. It’s probably his fault, but “Afraid of Everyone” is the only song on the album I can (sort of) get into sound-wise.
Next up is one of the album’s singles, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a song about reminiscing about your hometown negatively, followed by “Lemonworld,” where Berninger sings, “I want to sit in and die” several times. I’m feeling the same way. Not from sadness, but pure boredom. The next few tracks drone on in the same light. It does not help one bit that the vast majority of the songs all surpass the 4-minute mark, bringing the runtime to nearly 50 minutes. Is The National trying to torture us? I’m beginning to think this album is a very elaborate prank.
Finally, the oddly-named “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the final piece on this godforsaken album. It’s completely forgettable. So forgettable that when it finally ends, I don’t even realize the entire record is over. There is no grand finale, no denouement, no closure, and I am left feeling both duped and drained. Just as I always feel when I attempt to listen to The National. Sorry, Matt Berninger.